Black employees call Minneapolis Park Board a “toxic” workplace


A six-month Minneapolis NAACP investigation into employment conditions among African Americans at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) has found “systemic areas which the Minneapolis Park Board must address to remedy the concerns of our organization and those who come to us seeking assistance,” according to a December 23 letter from Branch President Booker T Hodges to John Erwin, park board chairman. The letter was prompted by “over 60 complaints from Minneapolis Park Board employees and over 100 customers’ complaints in addition to those employee complaints.”

In a series of meetings with the MSR in recent weeks, African American employees have described the current Park Board workplace as one where a “toxic” atmosphere of fear and retaliation is pervasive, where Blacks feel “disrespected” and “humiliated,” and where those who speak out against perceived inequities are targeted and punished for being “militant.” These Black employees feel that due to the lack of diversity in upper management, including the human relations department (see sidebar), there is “no one who looks like us” and no one willing to address their concerns.

Black employees also report several firings and reprimands based on “trumped-up charges” and on a double standard in applying policies to Whites and Blacks. These employees say they do not trust their union representatives to address their concerns or to support them in resolving disputes with their employer. As a result they feel isolated and “bullied” by their superiors.

The following are statements made to the MSR on condition of anonymity by Park Board employees who fear employer retaliation if they are identified. For that reason we have agreed to protect the identity of these sources unless they have given us permission to use their real names.

A hostile work environment now prevails at the Park Board, according to these sources. “They [supervisors] find a reason to point fingers” at non-White workers but not their White counterparts, notes one Black employee. “We have to cover our backs 20 times more [than Whites]. I have to prove every single thing that I do. Everybody’s afraid because you know you are being done wrong. What else can you do? You want to keep your job.”

 Summary of Minneapolis Park Board employees by race

Of eight full-time employees in the top employment category “Officials and Administrators” (does not include elected commissioners), all are identified as White and none as people of color.

Of 64 full-time employees in the second-highest category, “Professionals,” 53 (83 percent) are White, four (six percent) are Black, and seven (11 percent) are other people of color (Hispanic, Asian/Pacific, American Indian).

Of a total 273 full-time employees, 221 (81 percent) are White, 21 (eight percent) are Black, and 31 (11 percent) are other people of color.

Blacks and other people of color are concentrated in the category of part-time and temporary employees. Of a total 1,139 employees in this category, 605 (53 percent) are White, 429 (38 percent) are Black, and 105 (nine percent) are other people of color.

Of the current nine Minneapolis Park and Recreation commissioners, one is a person of color.

— From the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s June 30, 2011 EEOC Report

“If I screw up, then they say I can’t do the job. But I never was trained, and my supervisor can’t do it, either,” says another Black employee. “It would be nice to get training or help from my supervisor, but they send me to someone else who says, ‘Ah, you don’t know how to do it.’ They make you feel so low.”

The Black workers say that they have witnessed their White counterparts violate established company policies with their supervisors’ knowledge but never get penalized. “You noticed that others are doing things wrong, but you have to do things right.”

Moreover, they believe that favoritism is commonly practiced at the Park Board, especially in upper management. They say White employees’ family members or friends are hired and then promoted over Blacks, who often are hired only as one-year “seasonal” employees.
Black employees say the Park Board uses “first strike” tactics whenever Blacks are called in for “predetermination meetings” that suggest a possible suspension or firing. “All my colleagues are paranoid,” they point out. “If you speak up, you can rest assured that something is going to happen to you later on because you spoke up. I’ve watched [Blacks] come and go.”

A current longtime White employee, who spoke to the MSR on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, says he has witnessed Blacks dealt with more harshly than Whites. “There are certain people they [upper management] are out for,” says the individual. “I don’t think that’s right.”

One former longtime employee who was fired for allegedly falsifying work records several years ago claims that the key evidence used against him was “an anonymous phone call” that his supervisor said they received.

Another says she lost her job for “duplicating receipts.” She says that Whites who were similarly charged were not dismissed: “I was a person they had to get” in order to protect others “who do the same thing.”

A third former employee said he also was terminated for signing “fraudulent documents” but added that these reimbursement requests also were signed and approved by his superiors — at least three signatures are needed before funds are disbursed. “Nothing happened to those individuals,” he says.

All three former employees believe that Park Board officials often go after workers if they are perceived as troublemakers or seen as friendly with such a person or persons — the current Black workers call this a “process of [guilt by] association.” Even if you appeal the decision, one worker says, it is usually the same people — typically White — who conduct the appeal meetings.

“You are guilty until proven you’re innocent,” they believe.

Another former Black employee who was not fired but says he left for another position elsewhere tells us that during his time with the Park Board he was suspended twice for three days each time for “silly reasons” such as allegedly speaking to another employee about possible layoffs in the department.

Minneapolis NAACP Branch President Booker Hodges, who personally conducted the investigation, told the MSR last week that the Park Board has for at least two years used performance evaluations to “systematically target minority employees to terminate them from their jobs. They didn’t use the same standards for their White counterparts.”

According to Hodges, longtime Black employees were moved “to less desirable positions, for which the only explanation given was these scores they were given. It [also] was used to hold back minority employees from promotion opportunities,” he said.

The MSR received a copy of John Ervin’s response to the NAACP letter, dated December 30. “The MPRB takes all complaints of any type of discrimination extremely seriously,” wrote the Park Board chairman. “I am very surprised and concerned about the issues raised in your letter… You have my commitment that the MPRB will look into your concerns.”

Former park center director Angelo Bray was fired two years ago. “I worked for the Park Board for the past 23½ years,” says Bray, “starting from 1986 until 2009 when they terminated me.” He filed a civil rights discrimination charge in late 2008 against his supervisor and the Park Board.

“After I did that, there was a three-four month quiet period — they didn’t say anything nor do anything to me,” he recalls. As a result, he decided to withdraw his complaint. Now he feels, “I never should have withdrawn my claim.”

Bray says he blames most of his problems on not being able to get along with his White supervisor, with whom he admits he “didn’t quite see eye-to-eye.” He eventually was fired for submitting “a receipt that I had processed for $48.07… They said that was conduct unbecoming of a director. They terminated me the day before my 55th birthday, September 22, 2009.”

His lawyer advised him not to appeal but instead accept a buyout. “With all the stress, I went on and took the $30,000. I never should have listened to him and took the buyout. I should have stood my ground — I loved my job,” says Bray.

Current Black Park Board employees also tell the MSR that they do not trust their union, the Minneapolis Professional Employees Association (MPEA). “The organization and the union are in cahoots with each other,” the employees strongly believe. “There is no one individual…we can trust or go to. I pay my dues, but nobody [Black] can get [proper] representation.”

When contacted for comment, MPEA President Mary Meyer told the MSR last week via e-mail, “Any employee who believes he or she has not been properly represented should feel free to bring the matter to any MPEA Executive Board member, and we will look into the matter.

“We have never failed to come to the aid of one of our Union brothers or sisters who have requested it,” said Meyer. “If they are unhappy…then they should bring the matter directly to me, and either I will look into the matter or I will assign another Board member to do so.”

The NAACP has requested a meeting soon with Erwin, who has responded that he “wants to learn more about any information you have” and asks to meet with Hodges “at your earliest convenience to discuss the issues raised in your letter.”

“We hope we can remedy this issue,” says Hodges.

“Change needs to happen,” say the workers.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to